David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) is one of the masterpieces of its decade. But it was nominated for only one Academy Award, which it didn’t even win. It attests to its auteur’s Hitchcockian themes on the human condition as well as his Kubrickian manifestation of them.
With his Panic Room (2002), he tightens this style into a single setting with a two-hour runtime, and the final product is an artisanal entertainment.
If you don’t know what to watch next, Panic Room is available to stream on Netflix. The thriller stars Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and Dwight Yoakam. Scriptwriter David Koepp also coproduced.
Recently divorced Meg Altman (Foster) and her eleven-year-old diabetic daughter, Sarah (Stewart), move into a four-story Upper West Side New York City brownstone.
The house’s previous owner, a reclusive millionaire, had a “panic room” built in to hide from home invaders, complete with concrete, steel, surveillance cameras, a PA system, and a separate phone line.
The night the Altmans move in, Junior (Leto), the millionaire’s grandson, along with Burnham (Whitaker), an employee for the house’s security company, and Raoul (Yoakam), a hired gun, break in to steal three million dollars of bearer bonds locked in a floor safe under the panic room.
The claustrophobic mise-en-scene is redolent of the obvious influences, most notably Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Dial M for Murder (1954), and Rear Window (1954).
If good artists borrow and great artists steal, then a filmmaker could do much worse for a source of inspiration than the greatest director ever.
But it’s so much more than the generic tropes alone that makes Fincher a top contender for the Hitchcock of our time – it’s the ways in which he suspends our everyday mundanity as we recognize it outside of the film with as much tension as he does the mirrors of it inside the film.
And, for many Americans the year after the September 11 attacks, suspicion and surveillance became their reality. At times, Fincher rearranges the board so that Meg and Sarah are the predators in this cat-and-mouse game.
Do the ends truly justify the means, as the United States government claimed when they abducted and tortured Arabs and Muslims throughout human rights “black sites” across the globe, or are the ends only there to satiate the sadistic survival instinct within us all?
However, with two white women in trouble occupying the titular panic room, is this really a narrative we needed during the War on Terror?
Fincher would go on to subvert this template expertly in Gone Girl, but here, he promotes the ideology that justifies authoritarian breaches of privacy to begin with. Additionally, violence against women is too frequently used to sensationalize and titillate in conspiracy thrillers.
All in all, Panic Room is Fincher before his masterwork, which is powerful cinema nonetheless. It is a paranoid, high-concept thrill ride. Its ensemble also elevates the pulp fiction.